PREPARATION OF WITNESS STATEMENTS – SOME DOs AND DONTs

July 12th, 2010 by Anya Proops QC

In a paper which I delivered at the 11KBW Information Law seminar in May 2010, I identified a number of tips designed to assist parties in preparing for hearings before the information tribunal – the paper can be found here. Very recently, the tribunal has handed down a decision which highlights the dangers to a public authority if it fails to ensure that any witness statements generated for the purposes of the tribunal hearing are sufficiently full and illuminating: Metropolitan Police Service v IC (EA/2010/0006).

The MPS case involved a request made to the MPS for disclosure of information as to how much money Croydon Police had spent on paying informants in the preceding three years. The MPS refused disclosure of the requested information relying on a range of exemptions, including s. 30 (criminal investigations) and s. 31 (law enforcement). The Commissioner upheld the applicant’s complaint against the refusal notice. In the course of the appeal to the tribunal, the MPS produced witness statements in support of its case on appeal. However, as it happened, the significant evidence given by these witnesses was only obtained through the process of cross-examination. The tribunal voiced serious concerns about the fact that the MPS had not included such evidence in its witness statements (which had been exchanged some time before the hearing) but had, instead, effectively ambushed the Commissioner by giving such evidence orally at the hearing. The tribunal noted that this was not the first time the MPS had adopted such a course in proceedings before the tribunal and that ‘there may be cost consequences for the MPS in future cases’ (see paragraphs 16-17). What this judgment highlights is the importance of generating witness statements which contain, so far as possible, the core evidential points upon which the authority wishes to rely in advancing its case. If parts of the evidence are highly sensitive, this does not justify withholding the evidence. Instead, it merely means that the authority should structure the witness statements so that any sensitive, confidential elements are dealt with in the closed statements (which are then considered in closed session.

The tribunal went on to hold that the disputed information was in fact exempt from disclosure under s 24 (the national security exemption – as to which see my earlier post below). The point to be noted here is that the case may never have come before the tribunal had the MPS: (a) identified that s. 24 was in issue at a much earlier stage; and (b) been full and frank with the Commissioner as to the reasons why the information was exempt under s. 24. 11KBW’s Ben Hooper was instructed on behalf of the Commissioner.

 

APPLICATION OF NATIONAL SECURITY EXEMPTION TO AIRPORT SECURITY INFORMATION

July 12th, 2010 by Anya Proops QC

As might be expected, FOIA contains a specific exemption designed to safeguard national security, see the exemption provided for under s. 24. In essence, the s. 24 exemption is engaged if the exemption ‘is required for the purposes of safeguarding national security’. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the section 24 exemption is a qualified exemption (see s. 2(3) FOIA). This means that, even if the exemption is required in respect of particular information to safeguard national security, the information may still be disclosable on an application of the public interest test provided for under s. 2 FOIA. In Kalman v IC & Department for Transport (EA/2009/0111), the Tribunal was for the first time called upon to consider the substantive application of s. 24 (i.e. how it applied to specific information – cf. Baker v IC & Ors EA/2006/0045, where the tribunal considered the application of the national security exemption in the context of the duty to confirm or deny whether the information was held). The Kalman case involved an application for disclosure of information relating to airport security arrangements. The DfT refused to disclose the information on the basis that there was a real risk that the information, if disclosed, would be exploited by terrorist organisations. The Commissioner largely rejected Mr Kalman’s complaint against the DfT’s decision. Mr Kalman appealed to the Tribunal. There were two issues at stake in the appeal. First, whether s. 24 was engaged in respect of the disputed information and, second, if it was engaged, whether the public interest balance nonetheless weighed in favour of disclosure.

During the course of the hearing, the DfT conceded that some of the disputed information could be disclosed, not least because it was already effectively the stuff of public knowledge. The Tribunal went on to hold that there was other information which ought to have been disclosed for much the same reason. With respect to the remainder of the information, the tribunal accepted that s. 24 was engaged and that the public interest weighed in favour of maintaining the exemption. Notably, the tribunal held that the nature of the risk posed by the disclosure was so serious in this case (i.e. potential significant loss of life due to terrorists exploiting weaknesses in the airport security system) that, even if the risk was relatively slight, there would have to be an extremely strong public interest in disclosure to avoid the information being lawfully withheld. In reaching this conclusion, the tribunal adopted a similar analysis to the one which it had previously adopted in PETA v IC & Oxford University (EA/2009/0076) (case involving the application of the health and safety exemption in a case involving risk of attack by animal extremists).